Jesus told us a story about a Pharisee and a tax collector, there in the Temple. The Pharisee is clearly not a nice guy. He thinks he’s better than everyone else. But what about this tax collector? Close your eyes and picture him. See him.
Standing all by himself, pretty far back in the Temple. Staring at the ground. Or maybe his eyes are closed so he doesn’t have to make eye contact with anyone. Fist pounds gently against his chest, gently, but over and over again. Maybe he is crying. Do you think he is crying? What do you think of our tax collector?
Our tax collector is important. He has no name. He doesn’t need one. But close your eyes and picture him. See him.
Our tax collector is showing us the virtue of humility. Humility is good. Humility is necessary in this spiritual life. Humility is the soil out of which the garden of our spiritual growth grows. And every gardener knows: the key to a healthy garden is healthy soil. Tend the soil, and the garden grows.
St Benedict wrote his little Rule for the monastic life, a guide for how to run a monastery, but also a guide to discipleship. In that Rule, St Benedict wrote a 12-step guide to developing true humility. It’s very important.
We might not understand humility properly. That’s ok. We can talk about it, and what it isn’t.
Humility, in a nutshell, is just knowing exactly who you are. It’s knowing who you are, and nothing more, and nothing less. Humility is complete self-honesty about who I am, and whose I am, and where I have worth, and where I am incomplete. That’s humility. Sounds good, right? We want that. We want to be honest with ourselves about who we are.
Except it’s so hard to get the balance right. Some of us think we are better than we are. Some of us think that we are worse than we are. It’s very hard to get right. It’s really hard to be completely honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses, our flaws and sins, our gifts and talents.
And the world around us makes it much harder. The world around us tells us lies about ourselves. It’s exhausting.
Most of the time, we measure ourselves by the ruler that the world gives. Are we good enough?Smart enough? Pretty enough? Thin enough? Strong enough? Sexy enough? Hard-working enough?
The world hands us this ruler, and we never measure up. We’re always falling short.
Sometimes it’s people around us wanting to climb over us and feel better about themselves.
Sometimes it’s a way to make money. Modern consumer culture is based all on this. All those ads, all those commercials, all those magazine covers and magazine articles, all of it trying to sell you a fix for problems that you don’t have.
Sometimes it’s the work of demons, trying to sabotage the beauty of God’s grace.
Constantly, the world holds up a ruler next to us and we never measure up.
So we must tell the world that we will measure ourselves by a different ruler.
We are as smart and as skillful as God has made us. We are beautiful because God created us. The world will try to tell us that we are not good enough, but we are Christians, and we are called to live in the world, but not of the world.
So, with regard to the world, we defiantly reject its attempts to define us, and respond only that we are Christians, created by God and redeemed by Christ and living temples of the Holy Spirit, and the world cannot give or take anything greater.
But then humility, and our tax collector. He doesn’t care what the world thinks. He measures himself by the other ruler, the ruler that God gives. This is the ruler that measures his full potential as a human being. And he is honest with himself, because he practices the virtue of humility. Humility is the soil out of which the garden of our spiritual growth grows. And every gardener knows: the key to a healthy garden is healthy soil. Tend the soil, and the garden grows. Our tax collector tends the garden of his heart, and humility teaches him.
Here’s what it teaches him.
He is not what he could be.
He is not what God meant him to be.
He is certainly not God, and he cannot live without God.
He is, as the Psalm says, created just a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor.
He has, as the Apostle says, sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
There is no humiliation in this. Humility is not humiliation. Humiliation is a terrible thing. We’re torn down by outside forces, embarrassed, stripped of our dignity, stripped of our authority, stripped of our beautiful personhood. Humiliation is a terrible thing. But humility is just living in the truth of human existence, and the truth of human existence is that we are not what we could be. We are not what God meant us to be. We are not what the world or other people tell us we are. We are certainly not God, and we cannot live without God. We have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Now, the awareness of this leads to deep and lasting joy. That might seem like a paradox. Why would I feel better by realizing that I’m a sinner? The tax collector here doesn’t seem like he’s having very much fun.
But the start of a really good relationship with God is honesty. Honesty’s at the heart of every good relationship when you think about it. Your relationship with God is no different. So be honest, without beating yourself up. Go to God as the tax collector has, in all honesty, and let yourself be truly vulnerable. God, you are God and I am not. I am a sinner. I need your help. Have mercy on me. Begin here, and soon you will realize that despite everything, God loves you, and cares for you, and desires you, and longs for you to draw near to him.
The tax collector’s practice of humility lies at the heart of an entire prayer practice called the Jesus Prayer. It’s the prayerful, constant repetition of the prayer of the tax-collector: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It is a powerful prayer. It has aided millions on their journeys towards Christ.
Humility is not meant to make you feel miserable, but it might not feel good at first if you decide to try it seriously. We live in layers of self-delusion that make us feel better about ourselves, protective armor in a world that constantly tells us that we are worthless.
But humility is the soil out of which the garden of our spiritual growth grows. When we tend the soil, the garden grows.
Humility, true honesty, true vulnerability before Christ — it leads to healing. We find healing when we take our illness seriously. We find mercy when we actually ask for it. We receive the love of Christ when we open our own hearts and let it in.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.